The Syrian researcher determined to invest in the future of a displaced generation

Millions of Syrian children are being educated in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In 2014 Hiba Salem left her Damascus home to gain the qualifications needed to contribute to a generation facing formidable challenges within these host communities.

Hiba Salem in Cambridge (Nick Saffell)

My head is full of children’s voices. I’m writing up my PhD and beside me is a pile of children’s diaries and a heap of interview transcripts. As I tap away, I see the faces of the 80 boys and girls I spent three months with in 2017. These young people made a lasting impression and I feel a deep responsibility to them. They trusted me and I don’t want to let them down.

These children are refugees from my home country Syria. They live in Jordan. When I interviewed them they were aged 13 to 16 and were students at four different schools. Listening to their thoughts and opinions about their lives and futures was the fieldwork for my PhD in the Faculty of Education.

I was worried that teenagers wouldn’t want to talk. The opposite was the case. They really want to have their voices heard and they often had many questions they wanted to ask me. What was it like in England, did it rain all the time, what did people eat, and what was a PhD? They need people to care about them and help them meet their potential.

Hiba Salem introduces her diary project to Syrian teenagers

Rain, I was able to tell them, is part of life in the UK. When I arrived in Cambridge nearly four years ago I came straight from boiling hot Damascus to a wet, grey city. It took me a couple of weeks to adjust and begin to understand how Cambridge and its collegiate system works. I’d lived in America for seven years but when I went to Sainsbury’s for the first time I couldn’t understand what the cashier was saying.

I was brought up in Syria. But I’ve been much more fortunate than the children whose experiences I research. When we moved as a family it wasn’t to flee war but for my dad’s job. I was nine when we went to live in Washington in the USA. My early life in Syria had been fun. Playing with friends and eating delicious Arabic ice cream with pistachios sprinkled on top.

That idyllic Damascus childhood took place before the present troubles. Even when the initial uprising took place in 2011 we had no idea about what was to come. Syrian culture is all about family. Syrian families are always visiting each other and eating specialities like the musakhan, shawerma and fatteh dishes I’ve been teaching myself to make in Cambridge.

Diaries devised by Hiba Salem to capture thoughts and opinions

I started at an American school without a word of English. I sat in the class for a few days completely silent. The first word I understood was ‘draw’. I couldn’t speak but I was encouraged to draw. A couple of years later, I wrote a set of poems for my English class. At first my teacher refused to believe that my language skills could have developed into creative literacy — but they had.

Syria was always home. We went back there every summer and when I was 16 we moved back to Damascus for good. I went to a private school and then to a private university where I studied computer science, graduating second in my class. I got a good job as a database programmer.

The uprising became a civil war. As the conflict took hold, the war became more and more complicated and entrenched. We’d wake up in the morning to the sound of bombs falling. The commute to work became terrifying.

I decided to leave my job. I’d already been thinking of changing career. I was interested in education and psychology and I wanted to do something people-centred. I applied to UNICEF for a role in their Child Protection programme and didn’t get in. Although I’d worked as a volunteer with children, I didn’t have enough experience.

To work in education, I needed a qualification. I began to explore Master’s courses and wrote a research proposal. Several institutions offered me a place for postgraduate study. Among them was Cambridge which became my dream. I was interviewed on Skype by two professors in the Education Faculty who were warmly encouraging.

Funding my research was the next big issue. My Master’s course was funded through the Cambridge Trust in partnership with the Said Foundation. My doctorate is funded by three separate bodies, including the Queen Rania Foundation.

Many refugee children have big ambitions — just like anyone else. They want to be doctors, footballers, radio broadcasters. They have a strong desire to be valued by the wider world. They’ve been traumatised by terrible events. Their fathers and brothers have been killed. They’ve seen people being blown up.

Text from a diary: My motto in life is to be free, proud, with my head held high forever.

We all need people who care about us. When I finished my fieldwork in Jordan, I had letters from children saying that I was like a big sister to them. Many refugee children drop out of secondary school — boys to support their families by working and girls to help their mothers at home or marry early.

In host communities, refugee children aren’t always welcome. In Jordan schools operate a double shift system. Jordanian children go to school in the morning and Syrian children, together with another set of teachers, attend the same school in the afternoon. A schism results. Attempts to integrate the two school groups show positive outcomes but are few and far between.

Segregation creates profound problems. I look particularly at the negative impacts of segregation on social cohesion between communities within refugee-hosting nations. My work demonstrates the importance of speaking to students and including their voices in research and planning.

Children are not naïve. Refugee children are well aware of the hurdles they face. Even if they are bright, and doing as much studying as they can, they know that without money they won’t be able to progress into higher education. We need to ensure they get the opportunities they deserve.

Envelopes containing students’ wishes — which include learning to swim, becoming a pharmacist and getting rid of worry

Resources are stretched. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have taken in more than five million Syrian refugees. Communities are under immense pressure. The influx of refugees has drained national resources and challenged security. Rising unemployment rates, reduced schooling spaces, and inflated housing costs are key stress points. Syrian refugees live within restrictive conditions, such as laws not permitting them to work.

My research is qualitive rather than quantitive. The questions that form the basis of my work are semi-structured and I used a diary format to allow children to express their ideas freely. What I’ve learnt will help me and others to consider how policies can respond to the daily and contextualised challenges that refugee students experience.

Damascus remains close to my heart. My parents chose to remain there. We’re lucky to live in a relatively safe neighbourhood and they don’t want to leave — they’re determined to stand defiant. When I visit them, I fly to Lebanon and take cabs through a series of checkpoints to the Syrian capital.

I’m not sure what my next step will be. But what I’m certain about is that I want to remain in educational research and make a contribution to the field of forced migration.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.